Friday, February 22, 2013

Gray Days and Braying Jays

There are many East Coast birds that I miss a great deal even after a quarter-century of living in the Pacific Northwest.

Among them are cardinals,  with their blood-red feathers; mockingbirds, who somersault from TV aerials while belting out a medley of Top-40 birdsongs; brown thrashers, strutting like rusty peacocks across the lawn;  common grackles with their uncommonly iridescent feathers glistening purple and green; blue jays crisply decked out in cobalt and white with black trim.

Not that we're lacking for nice birds in this part of the world; varied thrushes, Pacific wrens, and chestnut-backed chickadees aren't too shabby, after all. But none of these show up regularly in my garden, whereas those East Coast birds practically lined the window ledges of my split-level childhood home.
The Steller's Jay who suddenly discovered our feeders.

So I was pretty pleased when Steller's Jays turned up in my area a few years ago, though I am fairly certain that this isn't the prevailing opinion in the neighborhood. Steller's Jays are nearly crow-sized birds that wear blue body feathers with a cape and crest of black. They're very attractive--but also very noisy and assertive.

The fact that they rob other birds' nests and eat the eggs and young uncomfortably suggests that their garb is an executioner's hood, though of course they're just trying to survive like any other animal. Still, it's not a habit that warms people's hearts.

They are birds of coniferous forests (of which there's no shortage in Washington), so the local ones tend to hang out in the neighborhood's tallest evergreens. They scream, squawk, and rattle as they trade catcalls wtih the crows.
Steller's Jay in our backyard birch tree.
Field guides devote a lot of space to the jays' raucous vocabulary: the Audubon field guide says they scream shack-shack-shack and chook-chook-chook; Kaufman's guide describes it as kessh, kesssh, and shek-shek-shek; Sibley hears shek shek shek shek but also shaaaaar (give or take an a). A 1968 Seattle Audubon bird guide agrees about shack shack shack but also catches a flitch-flitch-flitch in the cacaphony.

William Leon Dawson, writing in 1923, says the bird's cries are "harsh and expletive," noting that "Shaack, shaack, shaack is a common (and most exasperating) form," though he also acknowledges the jay sometimes emits a "mellow klook, klook, klook."

But it's Wikipedia (not a reliable resource but often fun to consult) that seems to get the greatest kick out of the jay's language. "One common call is a harsh SHACK-Sheck-sheck-sheck-sheck-sheck series; another skreeka! skreeka! call sounds almost exactly like an old-fashioned pump handle; yet another is a soft, breathy hoodle hoodle whistle. Its alarm call is a harsh, nasal wah....Some calls are sex-specific: females produce a rattling sound, while males make a high-pitched gleep gleep."

Every source cites the jay's ability to imitate a red-tailed hawk. A few claim the jay impersonates the hawk in order to frighten smaller birds away from food sources, but having seen how quickly a big jay blustering up to the bird feeder can disperse a flock of sparrows, I doubt it really needs to play vocal tricks to get what it wants. Like crows, ravens, and other corvids, jays are simply excellent mimics; Steller's jays have been heard borrowing the sounds of squirrels, dogs, chickens, and other animals. (I once heard a crow in a Grand Canyon campground do an excellent imitation of human snoring.)

Though the jay's shrieking and rasping probably sounds like nails on a blackboard to most people, it's a useful barrage for birds and other animals in the wild. The Steller's Jay is a very alert sentinel. Dawson notes that "to do him justice, it is usually the Steller Jay who is first to make discovery and outcry if there is any mischief afoot in the woods."

The jay's policing of the forest was also noted by Thomas Nuttall, a contemporary and fellow naturalist of John James Audubon. Audubon painted the jay, but in describing the bird quoted extensively from Nuttall, who reported that jays are "watchful as dogs" and that "a stranger no sooner shews himself in their vicinity than they neglect all other employment to come round, follow, peep at and scold him, sometimes with such pertinacity and irritability as to provoke the sportsman intent on other game to level his gun against them in mere retaliation."

He adds, "At other times, stimulated by mere curiosity, they will be observed to follow you in perfect silence, until something arouses their ready ire, when the djay, djay, pay, pay, is poured upon you without intermission, till you are beyond their view. So intent are they on vociferating, that it is not uncommon to hear them busily scolding even while engaged with a large acorn in the mouth."

Audubon also repeats information from naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who told him that the Chinook Indians called the bird "Ass-ass" (as I am sure some householders trying to sleep in on a Saturday might likewise be inclined to grumble with full Anglo-Saxon meaning intact). He went on to claim that the Chinook "regard it with a superstitious feeling, believing that should a person hear it enunciating certain notes, which resemble the syllables jaa-jaa, he will shortly die, whereas its other notes, kuc, kuc, kuc, kuc, rapidly repeated, portend good."

Uh-oh! Mr. Jay has spotted me through the window.

I must admit that I wasn't exactly thrilled to have this jay arrive at the feeder--he's a bit of a hog, and certainly cleared out the restaurant of all other customers, including the hummingbird. And I remember how one of his kind woke us up at the break of dawn on a camping trip when it invaded the nest of a cheerful family of sparrows living in a shrub beside our tent. Still, it's pretty cool to have such a big, rowdy, flamboyant bird brashly swaggering around in one's soggy, gray-green winter garden. If you can't have cardinals, that is.

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